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The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

11/15/2012 03:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 15, 2013

On any given morning, I wake up and my mind is already moving faster than my body. I need coffee. Rent is due tomorrow. Crap. I pay a ridiculous amount for an apartment I am never in. Should I move in with my boyfriend? I did that once before and it was terrible. God, my ex was such a jerk. He can't be alone. He's probably off jet setting with a 19-year-old again. I love it here in California. I wonder if I'll stay here forever? God, I have moved a lot. Maybe I will never settle down. I can't believe that guy once told me I couldn't be tamed. Maybe he was right. I think I need a career change. I need coffee. I wonder if I'm addicted? I have so much to do today! You get the picture.

My mind turns on this chatter track without even consulting me, and it runs nonstop until long after I lay my head on the pillow at night, finally wearing myself out from thought exhaustion. It causes pain to my human experience. After I moved to California last spring, the chatter started to disturb my peace to a point that I couldn't stop planning for my future and worrying that I would never live up to the high standards I had set for myself in my career. I really thought once I moved away from New York to live a quieter life that my mind would quiet as well. It's true what mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says: "Wherever you go, there you are."

I have always justified all this thinking and planning and creating of future fantasies by telling myself that I just had a lot of ambition to live life to the fullest. I needed to be responsible and make a plan for this person who was me -- but better. The problem was that the present me, just as she was, was being neglected. I wanted my mind to stop running wild and dragging my body along with it -- at least without first consenting me.

I heard about Vipassana meditation retreats years ago, when my meditation practice consisted of once a week for 30 minutes. Apparently, a Vipassana retreat was an opportunity to experience on a deeper level ways to be more present and connected in everyday life, which would aid one in cultivating the highest levels of happiness and inner peace. That sounded nice, but I stepped back in horror at the idea of a Vipassana retreat, solely because it entailed 10 days of silent meditation. All. Day. Long. It was all I could do to sit still through 30 minutes once a week, and I still was not sold on the idea that it was time more valuably spent than working on something else.

But like most things I am afraid of, I knew I would have to do a Vipassana retreat someday. Someday came last summer when I heard about the Fall Insight Retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, Calif. There was a lottery system to gain a spot because the roster of teachers included Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman. They are a pretty big deal in that world. I waited until the last 15 minutes of the last day to apply. As I hit the send button on the fax machine and looked at my crinkled application one last time, there wasn't a doubt in my mind I would get in. My time had come to begin a regular meditation practice. They confirmed my hunch on July 3, some 3.5 months before the actual retreat itself.

I spent those 3.5 months trying to find as many justifiable reasons as possible to get myself out of it. As Oct. 18 loomed closer and closer, the more I dreaded thinking about having to sit still all day long for 10 days straight and do nothing. The only thing that kept me in was the possibility that this might actually change my life for the better.

On Oct. 18 at 6 a.m., I packed up my car with my favorite comforter, hippie clothes, non-vegetarian snacks, and hit I-5 North. We weren't supposed to bring reading material, phones or writing devices. They were distractions from doing nothing. I told only my immediate circle where I was going and seven hours later I was in my dorm on the beautiful land of Spirit Rock.

I spoke briefly to a few people while checking in and being assigned my work duty for the week, which was cleaning the vegetarian dining hall after breakfast. I noticed some of the other retreatants, and it was clear we were a very diverse group. I saw Jack Kornfield float through the kitchen and grab some tea. I recognized him from the back cover of one of his books, and his kind way of being eased my dread of the next 10 days a bit.

The first evening, all 80 of us yogis, along with the six teachers and a Qi Gong instructor, removed our shoes and took our seats on the floor in the meditation hall. They explained exactly what we would be doing all week, which consisted almost entirely of sitting meditation, walking meditation and the highlight of the day, eating -- which was also supposed to be a meditation in and of itself. There would be instruction, support and teachings of Buddhist and secular wisdom that would help us strengthen our mindfulness meditation practice. I struggled in my seat on the floor, as sitting cross-legged for extended periods of time has never worked out so well for me.

From a show of hands, it was clear that I was one of the few people there who had never done this before. My comrades looked so peaceful, and I just looked scared. Jack assured us that everyone's mind was as crazy as our own, and for a second it convinced me that I was not the only one there who may already want to leave. We were also told that over the course of the week, we should notice how our mind participates in the stories we create of our life, versus the real fact of our life. Getting carried away in these stories and misbeliefs about who we are is what contributes to suffering. It was Thursday night, and after the introduction, the silence commenced.

It turned out that the fact of my life on Friday and Saturday seemed like I was a restless person who harshly judged herself and had many thoughts of fear and anxiety about not being successful. At least that is what one of the teachers reflected back to me when I checked in with her about what was coming up during my meditation. That made me feel pretty bad about myself. The teacher I was meeting with that day looked like a female version of the Buddha, with her pretty, small-featured happy face sitting on her voluptuous body with a little belly roll peeking out from under her shirt. In her soft and tender words, she conveyed to me that I needed to ease up on myself, and most importantly do it with a force of unstoppable kindness. Those negative things I was feeling about myself were not the fact of who I was, they were just stories.

On Saturday night, I hiked to my car, curled up inside and cried. The last two days of sitting, walking, sitting, walking, all while in meditation, was the hardest thing I had ever attempted to do. I was going to jump out of my skin. Excluding that time as a kid I got locked in a car trunk in a hide-and-seek game gone awry, I had never been so restless. My knees ached from sitting and every time I tried to cultivate a meditative state, my mind either raced away with thoughts or physically fell asleep. I was going to go nuts. In fact, I thought I was more nuts than I even knew before.

I trudged to the dining hall and pouted over my tenth cup of herbal tea that day -- there was no junk food to do any emotional eating. I poured a big gob of honey in, and as it's delicious sweetness touched my tongue a minute later, I tried to figure out what exactly it was that I was so miserable about. There were two things going on: I was restless and afraid I was missing out on some big opportunity in the outside world, and I was beating myself up about my truly human thoughts arising, so rudely standing in the way of my inner peace. I procrastinated from meditation a little longer and went back to my room to look at my stuff. That was all there was to do in there.

I laid down and really thought about why I had come. Was giving myself a 10-day retreat in a beautiful environment without having to do anything but be quiet and notice what I think about really something to be so upset about? Was I really going to miss out on some huge opportunity happening in the outside world? Had anything monumental happened in the 10 days previous? Or the 10 days before that? Not really.

I decided then and there that I would take a leap of faith and trust what I had learned on long trips to India I had run away on to find myself in my 20s -- being fully and presently in the moment of the retreat was all I needed to do. The rest would work out when I came home with a clearer head than before.

I sprung out of bed before the 5:30 a.m. bell the next morning, excited to hit my meditation cushion. The suffering my mind had been going through was somehow alleviated. Throughout the day, everything and everyone became more beautiful. The man who breathed too loudly next to me was suddenly not annoying. The moss on the trees and rocks was the most technicolor green I had ever seen, and I spent at least two minutes locked in a loving gaze with a deer. I was fully present. I felt happy. The pressure I put on myself to always be doing was gone. I felt okay just as I was. Not only okay, but good. I laughed at myself for getting so caught up in my labyrinth of delusion I am in on so many days -- the delusion of thinking I need to be anywhere I am not.

That evening, Trudy Goodman spoke on accepting our thoughts but not getting so attached that they define us. "Acceptance is the gateless gate," she quoted. Then she reminded us that The Beatles had this all figured out when they wrote "Let It Be," and we were serenaded with a live rendition of the song by our Qi Gong teacher Teja Bell, and his guitar. Meditation didn't have to be as grim as I thought it did. There was time for joy and laughing.

On the ninth day, reflecting back on my journey at Spirit Rock, I saw my original purity. I saw myself stripped away of all of the judgments and stories I created about myself -- the "I'm not good enoughs" and the "I'm not going to be okays" were silent. The fact of my life in that moment was that I was a fully alive vessel of loving kindness, joy and compassion. I was peaceful, healthy and free from inner and outer harm. I will forever have that place to return to within myself, and nothing else really matters.

For more by Erin Joy Henry, click here.

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